Displaced Blue Quill residents fuming over news that cigarette butt caused building fire

A fire that destroyed a 90-unit apartment building in Blue Quill on Sunday was caused by a cigarette disposed of in a potted plant. It caused $14 million worth of damage, and all units are uninhabitable.

'We're all homeless because of some piece of crap who put his cigarette in a planter'

Maria Tapia took this picture of her apartment building on fire shortly after she escaped with her husband and two dogs. (Supplied/Maria Tapia)

A fire that destroyed a 90-unit apartment building in Blue Quill on Sunday was caused by a cigarette stubbed out in a potted plant.

The fire started in a suite on the fourth floor at around 1:45 a.m. and caused $14 million worth of damage, investigators confirmed Monday. All of the units are now uninhabitable.

Sandra Luchyshin, who lived on the fourth floor of the wood-frame building at 115th Street and 27th Avenue, was woken up in the middle of the night by her neighbour banging on her door.

Luchyshin had lived alone in the building for about three years. She has multiple sclerosis and can't easily manage stairs, so she doesn't often leave her unit for false alarms.

This time was different.

"My neighbour knew I was in there and he kept banging on my door until I answered. It was already smoking at that point. He helped me go down the stairs. Thank God, I heard him," she said.

Luchyshin sat on the grass across the street for the next two hours as she watched up to 60 firefighters work to douse the flames.

The building was completely occupied — in fact, one man had even moved in the night of the fire, Luchyshin said, her voice still raspy from inhaling smoke.

Luchyshin is now staying with her sister on an acreage near Westlock. She has tenant insurance but is worried about those in her building who don't. 

"This just infuriates me," she said. "This is my family. These people are my family, and we're all homeless because of some piece of crap who put his cigarette in a planter."

'Completely and utterly unacceptable'

All of the residents escaped safely, though one person was taken to hospital after tripping outside the building, deputy fire chief Russell Croome said Monday. Thirty people required assistance from the Red Cross.

So far this year, 54 fires have been caused by cigarettes and other smoking materials — that's one fire approximately every three days. In total, these fires have caused $19.3 million in property losses.

In 2017, 63 fires related to smoker's materials caused $3.5 million in property losses, while in 2016, 88 such fires destroyed $5.4 million in property.

Croome said a resident admitted they were smoking on the balcony the evening of the fire and didn't realize disposing of their cigarette in a potted plant would lead to this. Potted plants typically sit in a mixture of peat moss. When dry, it can be very flammable, Croome said.

Charges will not be laid, he said, adding prosecution in cases such as these is difficult.

Croome said the extent of the damage was "completely and utterly unacceptable" for a preventable fire. 

"This is where the community really needs to take ownership of this," Croome said. 

"If you permit smoking on your property, we need the property owner or agent to provide a receptacle to dispose of the cigarette material properly or prohibit smoking. You have the power to create those bylaws."

An example of an appropriate cigarette butt receptacle is a can filled with sand and water, he said. 

None of the 90 suites in the Blue Quill apartment are considered habitable. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

'It's so stupid'

Croome said "every inch" of the building will need to be checked for safety before it can be determined whether residents can go back in. It's not yet known if the building is a complete write-off.

Maria Tapia and Jose Garcia made it out of their first-floor unit with two dogs, their passports and laptops.

They spent Monday buying essential items like toothpaste, shampoo and feminine hygiene items. They've been looking for a new apartment but haven't been able to find one as good as their former home.

Tapia said she was furious to hear a cigarette uprooted their lives overnight.

"I'm pissed. It's so stupid," she said. 

"I'm just mad. Mad, and sad for the people who lost everything."